MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - In a city filled with beautiful old homes, Gavin and Caprice Bart thought their home was the one they could grow old in while raising their two young children.
But those dreams quickly evaporated a few months after they moved in.
“What I know is we are flat broke and that is pretty frustrating,” said Caprice.
Built in 1910, and located in a historic part of Minneapolis’ Wedge Neighborhood, their home would soon become a wedge itself, pitting their financial health against what the city claimed was the health of their children.
After returning from a two-month trip to Vietnam, their youngest child tested positive for lead exposure.
A few days later, Minneapolis city inspectors were at their door for a mandatory home inspection, quickly drawing up a laundry list of repairs after finding old lead paint in several places.
Spaces in the home were long covered by newer lead-free paint, but traces of the toxic metal could still be detected under the new skin of paint.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lead is especially dangerous to children under the age of six when their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of the metal. Young children often put their hands or objects in their mouth which can contain lead dust.
Health experts agree there is no safe levels of lead when it comes to kids.
LONG LIST OF ‘FIX IT’ ITEMS
In the Bart’s basement inspectors found lead paint on three of the four walls. It was also found on their back and front porches and on all 27 windows in the home. There was dust, containing lead, around the window sills.
The family got an initial estimate from a contractor, a jaw dropping $70,000. Eventually, after negotiating with the city, they cut that bill by more than half, to $30,000.
It still put them deeply in debt, and underwater on their home.
They didn’t have a choice. If they didn’t fix the lead issues in six weeks, the city wrote them, their house could be condemned, they could face hefty fines and would even be prevented from selling their home in the future.
“Like, get out of my house," Caprice said. "These are my kids, not yours. My kid doesn’t chew on windows and doesn’t lick the floor."
Her husband was more conflicted. He’s a doctor at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and an expert in public health, so he gets it.
“But had I been told that this screening could result in a mandatory inspection and mandatory order that can set you back tens of thousands of dollars, I probably would not have done the screening,” he said.
The state health department recommends all children in Minneapolis and St. Paul get their blood tested for lead, at one and two years of age.
Children in the Twin Cities are statistically at greater risk because there are more homes built before 1970, which makes them more likely to contain traces of lead paint, the leading cause of lead poisoning in children.
For decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the “level of concern” for lead in the blood of children was 10 micrograms a deciliter.
But five years ago, the CDC lowered that standard to five micrograms. By comparison, the average grain of sand weighs 10 times more (50 micrograms). Now, instead of a level of concern, it’s simply called a “reference point” that included 2.5 percent of the population under the age of 3. The CDC recommends an inspection of the home, but not mandatory remediation.
In Minnesota, if a child’s blood test is 5 micrograms a deciliter--or higher--the lab must automatically report the results to the State Health Department.
Most of those children live in some of the poorest neighborhoods and in rental properties with high turnover.
THE MINNEAPOLIS STANDARD
Gretchen Musicant is the Minneapolis Health Commissioner.
“We want to protect children at the earliest possible time we can,” Musicant said. “If you think of children and their behaviors, they spend a lot of time in their homes and they spend it on the floor. Their way of exploring is to put things in their mouth.”
In Minneapolis, any child testing at 5 micrograms or higher triggers a mandatory home inspection and remediation, if needed.
But the state standard is much lower, allowing a child to have three times as much lead in their blood: 15 micrograms.
The Fox 9 Investigators found three other cities with the standard of 5 micrograms: Portland, Denver, and Washington D.C., but only Denver and D.C. have mandatory inspection and remediation similar to Minneapolis.
“Levels are coming down and five may not be the final answer,” Musicant said. “Our interest is in young children. We have a very high number of older homes in our city.”
The Fox 9 Investigators wondered how many other parents were in the same boat as the Bart family, left with lead remediation bills that could stretch into the tens of thousands of dollars. But because the inspections are based on the health of a child, almost all of the information is confidential.
This is the big picture: Since 2015, the city has ordered 256 properties to have lead abatement. 168 were rentals, 88 were homesteaded properties.
90 percent of the rental properties received HUD grants, making the average cost of lead abatement $6,471.
But only 67 percent of the homeowners qualified for HUD grants--to qualify, you have to be making less than $56,000. Even with the grants, their average cost was still $9,000.
That doesn't include a third of the homeowners who didn't qualify for grants.
“We are always interested in being creative and flexible," Musicant said. "But they need to get the work done, they need to have a plan, they need to be working on that plan."
ANOTHER FAMILY’S STORY
A Minneapolis woman who did not want to be identified in this story had a son who also tested positive for lead. She still fears retaliation from city inspectors.
“I think the initial contact doesn’t need to be so aggressive,” she said.
Her husband took a course so he could do the remediation work himself, removing lead paint on the stairs and around some of the windows. They believe a contractor would’ve charged at least $20,000. The whole experience left her rattled.
“But to have the first initial contact with the city, ‘Oh, if you don't do this we could take your kid away,’" she said.
LEAD INSPECTIONS BEFORE A HOME SELLS?
A national expert told the Fox 9 Investigators there should be more resources for all homeowners when it comes to ridding lead from homes.
David Jacobs used to run HUD’s lead hazard control program and is now Chief Scientist at the National Center for Healthy Housing in Maryland.
“It shouldn’t be just up to the homeowner," he said. "There should be tax assistance grants."
In addition to more financial incentives, he would like to see a home inspection include lead detection.
“Let’s do the inspection at the time of sale so people know what they are getting into,” Jacobs said. “I think it’s time to require an inspection at the time of sale and lease.”
A spokesperson for Minneapolis said the city has not considered a proposal to require lead inspections for home sales.
Currently, a home seller must disclose if there is lead in their home--if they know about it--to a buyer at the time of sale.
NO SECOND CHANCES
The Barts wished they’d had that kind of warning before buying their house--they were unaware a simple blood test could have so many financial consequences.
And before the work had barely begun, a second blood test showed their one-year-old was back in the normal range.
“I asked them what it means if they test my kid again and his levels are normal, and they said, "It is too late, we’ve already gone through your house,” said Caprice.
After a summer of construction and worry, it doesn’t quite seem like the dream house any longer.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to spend $30,000 and put A/C In my house?” Caprice said.
For more information on lead and lead poisoning prevention tips visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.